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Archive for October 2012


A Price on Their Heads

Ever since my aunt lifted me up to a glass case at the back of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, at the impressionable age of eight, I have been hooked on shrunken heads.

Like so many schoolboys before me, my lower jaw dropped as I gazed in awe at the array of miniature human heads, correctly known as tsantsas. There was something wholly captivating about their gnarled features, the sewn lips, little hollow necks and manes of jet black hair.

I longed to learn the secret processes, known to a tribe deep in the South American jungle, which enabled decapitated human heads to be shrunk to the size of a grapefruit.

Despite an ongoing debate about whether museums should harbour human remains, the Pitt Rivers Museum still holds five, and the British Museum has at least ten. Interest in the gruesome exhibits remains strong. A roaring private trade in the illicit handicraft has developed, with heads being snapped up by wealthy collectors, many from the Far East and Japan.

The genuine article comes from the Upper Amazon, a region on the Pastaza river between Peru and Ecuador.

To continue reading, please see my article at Explorers Connect.


In Search of King Solomon's Mines

An inky hand-drawn map was hanging on the back wall of Ali Baba’s tourist shop, deep in the maze of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Little more than a sketch, and smudged by a clumsy hand, the map showed a river and mountains, a desert, a cave, and what looked like a trail between them. At the end of the trail was an oversized ‘X’.

‘Is it a treasure map?’ I asked. Ali Baba, an old man with a pot-belly, glanced up from his newspaper. ‘It shows the way to the fabled gold mines of Suleiman,’ he said. After an hour of negotiation, I slid a wad of Israeli shekels across the counter and left with the map. Anyone else may have scoffed at the object, or laughed at my gullibility. After all, Jerusalem’s Old City is cluttered with Holy Land bric-a-brac. I had a feeling from the start that Ali Baba’s map was suspect, for it had no place names or co-ordinates.

But to me it symbolised a family obsession.

To continue reading, see my full article at Explorers Connect.


Tahir Shah's top ten do's & don'ts for expeditions

10 Key Things on a Jungle Expedition

1. Lead from the front. Never ever ever ever expect someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.

2. Make sure that you have plenty of food — good food — and that the team eat before you do.

3. Think ahead. Never march on too late into the afternoon without taking into account that a storm could sweep in. So, build a camp when it’s not raining, even if you haven’t marched very far on a given day.

For more of my top tips on how to manage an expedition, please see my article over at Explorers Connect.


Event: December 4th, 2012 in Wimbledon



This last week I made the trek from Casablanca to Wigtown, in Scotland, for the literary festival there. Anyone who knows my views on writing and the world of books will be well aware of my aversion to Lit Fests, as they’re known in the trade.

I can’t stand them.

This is because I don’t believe authors should be congratulating each other or being applauded by audiences. They should be writing instead. I believe strongly that the moment an author puts down his pen, or pushes back from his keyboard, he’s not a writer, but a bum.

If there is an exception in the Lit Fest calendar, it’s Wigtown. A gloriously eccentric backwater of delight, it’s one of those places that captures the imagination and the heart. The longer you spend there, against a backdrop of grey granite stone and autumnal skies, the more you come to understand its gentle perfection.

Wigtown is one of those destinations that calms the soul, and reminds jittery authors that they are a fragment of a grand tradition. It’s the self-styled Scottish town of books. And what could be better than a remote corner of the British Isles dedicated to leather-bound editions, Beano annuals, and forgotten volumes on sheep-shearing and cooking with tripe?

Much of my time at Wigtown was spent caressing the cases of leather-bound books at The Bookshop, owned by the inimitable Shaun Bythell. Words can hardly describe the jewels on offer, from eighteenth collections of Highland poetry, to volumes in French devoted to early rambles through the Orient.

Down on the margins of the water there’s a stone to which martyrs were once trussed, to allow the incoming tide to drown them. And, through the nearby forest of oak saplings and elm there are waterfalls, where the River Cree tumbles out towards the sea.

A handful of days later, I have found myself back in Casablanca, the shantytown brooding around us, murmurs of demolitions back on communal tongues. I’ve been sitting here wishing… wishing I could click my heals together and be back in Wigtown, running my fingers over the speckled calf bindings once again.


Wisdom of Wigtown

The people at Wigtown are generating a book of the wisdom of Wigtown during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival, and they asked the following questions:

1. Is there something that someone told you early in life that proved to be useful?

Yes: My father told me never ever ever listen to anyone who tried to hold me back, and to think for myself.

2. What do you wish you knew when you were 18?

I wish I had known how important it is to be original and not try to ape others.

3. What word do you repeat to yourself when the going gets tough? Or what word sums you up?

The word I repeat to myself over is over is: FORWARD!

4. How would you finish the sentence “It’s never too late to…”‘

“…write a book that will change the world.”